Last year, Charlotte Fedders wrote a letter to the president. She never posted it, but her sister did. In it, the 41-year- old mother of five said, "I am a victim of wife abuse. For over 16 years of marriage my husband periodically beat me. . . . I have had a broken eardrum, wrenched neck, several black eyes, many, many bruises. Once he even beat me around the abdomen when I was pregnant.
"I do not understand . . . how a man can enforce one set of laws and abuse another."
The man she was writing about, her husband of 18 years, was John M. Fedders, the enforcement chief for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Until his resignation on Feb. 26, Fedders was the top cop of corporate America, a man in charge of 200 lawyers, accountants and adminstrators, a man who oversaw hundreds of cases of corporate ethics.
The private life of this man, this woman and their sorry marriage came to public light this week on the front pages of The Wall Street Journal and in the divorce proceedings of a courtroom in Montgomery County.
It is now public knowledge that John Fedders had at least seven "highly regrettable episodes" of violence against his wife. He admits to that. It's public knowledge that he abused her verbally. We know that he didn't allow shoes worn in their carpeted house. We know that she laid out his clothes in the morning and picked them up in the evening where they were dropped. We know that he grew up calling his strict parents by the joint name "General Patton." We know that she stopped being a victim.
In that sad context, Charlotte Fedders' question to the White House had a curious psychological edge to it. How, indeed, can the same man enforce one set of laws and abuse another? First, I suppose, the man has to see himself as the law.
If Fedders' profile fits that of wife beater, he was family lawmaker and enforcer rolled into one. As he once said, "Everything in my life is discipline, organization and structure." Human relationships, though, are messy, and there are many who try to control them with force.
But this is more than just another piece of high-powered gossip. The controversy over Fedders' resignation is part of a larger ethical dilemma. How and when does a person's private life disqualify him for public life?
Fedders had other troubles. He was subject to an inquiry in a grand-jury investigation of a client. He lived a corporate lawyers' life style on a bureaucrat's paycheck and a bank loan. But it was the accusation and confession of family violence that threatened his reputation and his job.
In the past, such scandals were kept tightly wrapped. In the past, a mere whiff of an "immorality" was professionally lethal. Today, we have more revelations and fewer guidelines. Instead of talking about sin, we talk about the relevance to job performance. Does promiscuity prohibit a run for political office? Is drunkenness a public matter in any high office or only during office hours? Should someone caught smoking marijuana be banned from making policy for air travel or arms control?
In this case, the charge of wife beating is a domestic matter, not a criminal one. Indeed, Fedders won a delay from the divorce court in hope of a reconciliation. Whatever his family troubles, he did his job well. From all reports, as head of SEC enforcement, he was one of the driven and dedicated, a federal tough guy. He's cracked down on insider trading and Swiss bank accounts. Is a domestic battle enough to end this career?
Once, after an ugly personal exchange, a critic told the poet Robert Frost, "Robert, you are a very good poet and a very bad man." Robnderful poems and behaving rottenly to many around him. Do we have to lose a good cop because he is a bad family man?
In the end, I think the Fedders affair hinges on the essence of wife beating: violence. All 6-foot-10-inches of John Fedders beat another person, not once, not twice, but at least seven times. It's violence that separates this case from the others and simplifies it. This is not like those delicate questions of drinking in the office. It's more like the case of a drunk who has already hit and run.
Fedders and his colleagues insist that his personal woes didn't affect his work. I believe that. The same man can perceive and pursue wrongdoing at work and at home with vastly different results. Fedders can hone his hairline distinctions, denying wife beating, admitting violent "episodes." But the public doesn't have to accept these distinctions as valid.
Let me rephrase Charlotte Fedders' question. Should a man who has brutally violated one code of behavior have the power to enforce another? The answer is "no."